Monday, 22 February 2010

Deja dit

I have this conversation around 20-30 times a day with practically every Indian (usually male!) that I meet from fellow train passengers and street kids, to rickshaw drivers and hotel managers. It is unbelievably repetitive and goes along these lines:

“Hello Madam! Where you from?”

“From England.”

“Ahh England (smiles)….cold!”

“yes very”

“you friends?”

“no I’m travelling on my own”

(looks utterly shocked)”you travel lonely? No friends? No husband?”

“yes travelling alone. No husband as yet!”

“you have how many years?”

“I’m 29.”

“Hmmm” (he mentally calculates 29 + not married = something must be very wrong with her) ”how much days in India?”

“six weeks.”

“no friends six weeks?”

“no just travelling on my own.”

“no trouble?”

“not as yet”

“where you go in India?”

“I spent a couple of weeks in Kerala. Now I travel round Rajasthan.”

“you like India?”

“yes it’s very beautiful”

“and (insert place name) you like?”

“yes very much. Are you from here?”

“yes” (pauses) “you like cricket?”

(Uh oh…here we go!) “err…sort of. We’re not very good though!” (I think!)India beats us!”

(smiles) “Flintoff”

“yes Flintoff” (please don’t ask me anything else about cricket!)

“he good character?”

“yes…I guess”

“ahh…(smiles, realizes he’s run out of conversation and moves on)

The Taj

You don’t go to Agra for the city; you go for the Taj. Dispel every photo or video you’ve ever seen because the Taj, when you’re stood before it at the first light of day, is more awe-inspiring, more breathtaking and more utterly beautiful than you can ever possibly imagine.

Built by Emporor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal who died during childbirth, the Taj is often described as the most extravagant monument built for love. The emperor’s brief to his architect was to recreate heaven on earth; the architect succeeded! The perfect symmetry (it’s exactly as wide as it is high and the height of the dome is exactly the same height as from the ground to the base of the dome), exquisite Mughal architectural design and virtually transparent marble blocks inlaid with semi-precious and precious stones give the Taj magical qualities that deliver a real sense of other worldliness.

The magic starts as the sun begins to rise. The Taj gradually emerges from its hazy mirage to be warmed with a pale wash of yellow. As you watch, the suns golden glow slowly turns a rusty red, and the Taj transforms before your eyes reflecting the sun’s rays as a marvel in pink. The sun continues to rise until its colour bleaches. At this point the Taj once again regresses to become a ghostly mirage of white.

Standing there watching the transformation of the Taj is exceptionally moving and a wholly enchanting experience. The sheer amount of passion, love, vision, sweat and tears that went into its building is a fantastic testament to the character of human nature at its best. If I was to imagine a heaven, I would guess that the building of the Taj is a pretty close re-creation of it.

Forts, palaces, temples and a slight detour

The following morning I met up with Babalu (the Sundar Palace rickshaw driver) who was going to show me around Jaipur. Our first stop was the city palace in the heart of the pink city. Away from the glitzy shopping malls near where I was staying, the old town was India in its truer form with rampaging rickshaws, hardworking stall holders and a plentiful scattering of mangy dogs and bloated cows. The city was founded by and named after Maharajah Jai Singh II when he decided to move abode from the congested city of Amber.

In 1876 Maharajah Ram Singh had the entire city painted pink – the traditional colour of hospitality – to welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Today, at dusk, the city glows pink in the fading light.

The city palace in the heart of the pink city is a fantastic maze of courtyards, Islamic style arches and a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. Successive Maharajahs have made additions to the palace over the years and today it stands as a fantastic museum of regal textiles and impressive armoury. I spent a good hour visiting the palace with an audio guide.

Babalu was waiting for me outside the gates and we made our way to the rickshaw. Yanking at a lever the rickshaw roared to bone-juddering life and I got in. We pulled away but, just as we did, the rickshaw jerked, there was a loud clunk and the rickshaw suddenly lent over to one side. help him out. One guy immediately handed Babalu 500R (a day’s wages!) so that he could afford to get his rickshaw fixed.

A few minutes of lively discussion, head scratching and general poking about and it was decided that a mechanic was required for the job. I was asked to sit on the side of the rickshaw that hadn’t sunk, and we limped lopsidedly through the old town to find a rickshaw mechanic.

We arrived at a small bustling square where sickly looking buses marooned on jacks were being tinkered with by men blackened with oil. On one side of the square was a row of shiny new green and yellow rickshaws next to the crumpled carcass of a rickshaw that had come there to die. Nothing was wasted: every little bit of scrap that could be used had been stripped from the rickshaw carcass leaving just the clean bones of its shell. From those parts, other rickshaws were given a new lease of life.

In a small hut men tapped, prodded and drilled away at rickshaws whilst others took a welcome break at the chai stall next door. Babalu got into negotiations and a group of men gathered to assess the extent of the damage. The verdict was out: it would take four hours.

Whilst Babalu finished arranging for his rickshaw to be fixed, I had a wander round. I watched as a man and woman sat in amongst a large pile of rubbish, carefully sorting it out into piles. There was a pile for plastic items, a pile for rubber shoe soles and a pile for cardboard. Forget recycling plants, here it is all done by hand!

Directly opposite them was a flower stall selling sacks of flower heads in every colour of the rainbow – their flowery scent overpowering that of the rubbish. I wandered back to the mechanic hut and got chatting to one of the men at the chai store who very kindly offered me a seat. After the obligatory ‘Where you from?’ conversation, I asked him how much a sparkly new rickshaw would cost and he told me that they cost 25,000R (349GBP). This is a substantial sum for rickshaw drivers who, on a good day may earn 500R taking tourists sightseeing but only take home 100R on a bad day.

Babalu had arranged for his uncle to lend him his rickshaw so we had a chai and waited. I asked him how he got the job for Sunder Palace and he explained that one of his uncles worked there and had got him the job. Babalu’s English was excellent but he explained that he had never been to school and had only learnt English through his work with tourists. It really makes you realize how lucky we are in the West to be offered education as standard when you sit across a table from someone who had never set foot inside a school. I asked him about the guy who’d lent him money and he explained that he lived in an area where lots of rickshaw drivers live and they all help each other out when they need it. There seems to be a real sense of community here that we could really learn from in the west.

We were soon on our way again in Babalu’s uncle’s rickshaw. We headed out of town then took a left onto a smaller, quieter street. Babalu asked if I wanted to drive the rickshaw. I explained that I’d never ridden a motorbike nor did I have my glasses on thus making me a risk to our health but he was fairly insistent. Perched next to him on the driver’s seat he explained how to change gear and how to accelerate. Worryingly, he kept control of the brake. We set off and I dodged cows and cycle rickshaws, narrowly missed head on collisions with cars and was over taken by smoky buses. At times, our way was blocked by a cow and there would be a car heading straight for us. My instinct was to brake but Babalu had other ideas so we would swerve violently with a hair width to spare between us and the car. After 10 minutes and the loss of 8 of my 9 lives I decided that I would take to the back seat once more.

We headed out of town towards the hilltop town of Amber and its magnificent fort. On our way we passed the mystical water palace set in the centre of a lake and casting a perfect reflection.

Amber fort stands tall on a hilltop overlooking the old city. It was once the abode of Jai Singh II before Amber got too congested and he decided to move the city to Jaipur, which he designed and named himself. The fort is magnificent structure with the noteworthy Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) that is beautifully designed with a mosaic of mirrors and beautifully carved marble pillars.

After a couple of hours of getting lost inside the fort, it was time to head to Galta – the temple of the Sun God. Here, monkeys converge at dusk. We headed there and Babalu dropped me off to walk up the steep hill to the temple. A man was feeding the monkeys bananas so they were absolutely everywhere. At one point I came across a car where four monkeys, with the guilty look of sly vandals, were trying to chew and rip off the windscreen wipers and the plastic edging of the car’s windows. Each time, they would look around to make sure the coast was clear before attacking the plastic.

The Galta temple is unremarkable in its design but does have commanding views of the city. It would be a great place to watch the sun set; unfortunately, I was a couple of hours too early but I soaked up the view for a while, watched a group of people in the centre of the temple worshiping, before retracing my steps into the throng of begging children at the bottom of the hill. In front of me were three friends from Estonia (I heard them trying to explain where Estonia was to a young boy who asked them where they were from) and I watched as one girl took a photo of a cow that was in the process of giving birth, only for a man who happened to be stood nearby demand money from her for the photo.

It was 4pm and I decided that I’d reached my sightseeing limit for the day and that I’d head back to the hotel. On our way, we passed by a sweet shop called Rawat Kachori, which is famed for its kachori (flat dough that puffs up when fried and is stuffed with dhal or onion) and its fantastic array of artisan Indian sweets. Babalu picked up a couple of kachori for us both and I virtually inhaled mine having had only a small snack for lunch.

Just as I was getting out of my rickshaw in front of the hotel, Gavin walked passed and asked if I’d like to go sweet shopping back at Rawat Kachori. I had no other plans so I took him up on his offer and we walked back. He was buying sweets to take back for friends and he seemed to have a better idea about which to get so I asked if he could get another box made up with the same set for me. We also bought some thick lassis which were flavoured with rose water before returning to the hotel.

We sat outside and I hit WiFi as he wrote his play. When it got to 7pm he asked what I was doing for dinner. I said I had no plans but that I was secretly very tempted to return to the restaurant frequented the night before for another dose of tandoori chicken. He had been thinking the same and, as it was Valentine’s Day and we were both away from our respective partners, we decided to have dinner together again. We ended up at the same table, in the same restaurant and ordering the same food as we had the night before.

A Zimbabwean in Jaipur

It was 9am and I was sat on the rooftop of Sunder Palace overlooking the city of Jaipur. I’d just put my order in for fresh coffee and a banana pancake when the guy on the table next to me turned round and thanked me for the inspiration to have a pancake for breakfast.

Gavin Warner is a Zimbabwean who lives in South Africa and is an actor by trade. We started chatting and didn’t stop for three hours. Having not spoken to someone who could speak English fluently for some time, it was a great relief to have a good old chin wag. In the time we spoke we’d discussed the ins and outs of Indian culture, the terrible dress sense of tourists in India, apartheid, Gavin’s play, my thoughts on a career change and the problems associated with African politics.

Two pots of coffee later and I was fully relieved of the loneliness that had crept up on me the day before. Gavin and I arranged to head out for dinner in the evening to a restaurant that he’d found the night before that served up great tandoori chicken then I headed off to take a look at the shopping malls of Jaipur. I’d decided to take a day off from temples and forts and had decided that a little retail therapy was in order.

From my short tour of the shopping malls, I came to the conclusion that, unlike the west, clothing stores here are primarily catered to the needs of men. There were surprisingly few shops for women yet many jeans, shirt and sports shops for men.

That evening I chomped away happily on the best tandoori chicken I’d had in my whole time in India; unfortunately, there was no chance of a beer or glass of wine to go with it. As Gavin quite rightly pointed out, it’s virtually impossible to enjoy a beer or wine with a meat dish in India: the only restaurants in which you are likely to find beer are Hindu owned vegetarian establishments, whilst the places that serve meat are usually Muslim owned and don’t serve alcohol. Either way, the number of licensed places is surprisingly so if you do order a beer it may be a clandestine beer that arrives in a teapot.


Adam Katz – a travel writer who’s been travelling for three years – wrote an article about loneliness when solo travelling and stated that:

"Oddly, the times that I feel the most lonely are in the most touristy cities. There are tons of people. Plenty of people speak English, but no one is excited to meet a tourist. The locals ignore you, or want to sell you something. The tourists are involved in their own activities and chat among their friends."

I can only agree with this statement as it was exactly how I felt in Pushkar. Pushkar is the Rajasthani beachless version of Palolem with tourists aplenty and the likes of mashed potato and pizza gracing the menus. I’d been warned in advance that the town, famous for its bathing ghats was missing a key ingredient: the lake. The monsoon rains last year had been very light and consequently, the lake had shriveled up into a small muddy puddle – a mere dribble of its former self.

Nonetheless, I was told that Pushkar was worth a visit, and in many ways it was. The pizzas were good and there were plenty of temples to take a look at. But equally, it was extremely lonely. To sit around at the street-side stalls brimming with tourists and for them to pay little attention to you in spite of your attempts to initiate conversation can be pretty hard going. I was also missing Mike terribly so all-in-all my time in Pushkar was not the happiest.

Added to this was a sleepless first night brought about by a bunch of Indian tourists in my hotel who insisted on having massive shouting conversations right outside my door for much of the night. Twice I got up to tell them to shut up to which their response was to knock on my door every time they walked passed. The following morning I told the manager that I was going to find somewhere else to stay and that I wouldn’t be paying for the sleepless night: I give him that, he said he understood completely and that that would be fine.

I left my bags behind whilst I headed down to the Honey Dew coffee shop to tuck into muesli and curd, banana lassi and Italian coffee. From there, it was a slightly depressing tour of dark and damp rooms before I found Comfort Holiday Home. This great little place was right in the centre of town and had a fantastic roof garden where one could escape the hustle and bustle and catch a few rays.

Having visited a couple of token temples and decided that the walk up a steep hill for panoramic views of the lake would be more trouble than it would be worth, I spent much of my time attempting to socialize with other tourists and then, when unsuccessful, migrating to one of the many internet cafes. Two days would have been the perfect amount of time in Pushkar but I had three days and the third dragged.

It was finally 8pm and time to get the bus to Ajmer where I’d then catch the train to Jaipur. The bus was packed with men, women, children and luggage – there were 8 men in the driver’s compartment alone and one man had to lean to one side every time the driver wanted to change gear. We set off in the dark up the steep hill that separates Pushkar and Ajmer, swerving to avoid those cars and motorbikes heading straight for us without lights.

After a half hour drive we finally arrived at Ajmer. I was ladened down with my backpacks and there were lots of women with babies and young children getting off the bus so I stood back and let them off first. In true Indian style, which lacks any attempt at chivalry, the man behind me started nudging me and then actually started telling me off for not pushing into the exit fray. Putting on my best English accent I responded with: “ Excuse me! There are ladies with children so it’s only polite that we let them off first isn’t it?” He grumbled away to himself but he wasn’t going to get past my rucksack so he had no choice but to endure enforced chivalry.

Opposite Ajmer station I tucked into spicy dahl and chapatti at a small street stall for all of 16 rupees (about 20p) before heading for my first class compartment on the train. First class is very different from the 2A or 3A tier classes: it consists of an enclosed compartment with four beds. Whilst it is definitely a comfortable way to travel, I preferred the 2A tier compartments which were open and had more people about. I was in luck as the gentleman I was sharing the carriage with was very pleasant and worked in the plastics and PVC industry; nonetheless, there was something a tad odd about sharing a compartment with just one other man. Fortunately, I only had a short train ride so I didn't actually sleep in the carriage.

Two days in the blue city

I arrived in Jodhpur with a mild case of Delhi Belly and wrote my first day off. Instead, I sat in the beautiful atrium of my guesthouse, reading, moping and generally feeling sorry for myself.

The following morning I was feeling much perkier and was ready to face Jodhpur city. The city is centred around the clock tower: the tower is not that spectacular but it’s a great place to start a city visit. Heading out in all directions from the clock tower are market stalls piled high with fruit and veg, bazaars, stalls selling lassis and chai, and a network of small streets in which you can get hideously lost.

Behind the clock tower and perched atop a cliff face is the Meherangarh Fort. Getting there is much harder than the characteristically vague LP map would lead you to believe. You meander through tiny little streets lined with the blue houses* for which Jodhpur is famed, then backtrack as you find yourself at a dead end with a woman firing rapid Hindi at you whilst smiling and waving at you to about turn. Eventually you find yourself at the steep litter-lined path that leads up to the fort.

The path offers commanding views of the city with its blue houses colouring the grey morning mist that hangs low over the city. In the distance is Umaid Bhawan Palace – now part hotel and part residence for the current Maharajah and his family. To the left is is the milky white marble memorial of Jaswant Thada.

The fort itself is fantastic with its overbearing sandstone outer walls and beautiful internal palace and courtyards. After independence the fort was closed up and left to crumble, and it was only thanks to the current Maharajah that it was restored, transformed into the fantastic museum it is today and given back to the people. Of all the forts I visited, this was by far my favourite.

After an enlightening couple of hours – which included having my palm read a second time – I decided to walk back down to the clock tower. Given the myriad of little lanes, it was inevitable that I would get utterly lost. I found myself winding my way around cows and street dogs and along the quiet residential streets that were free of motorbikes and rickshaws. Goras (whit people/tourists) were a novelty here. Street children gathered round all wanting to shake my hands, women stopped mid conversation and stared, every passerby asked me where I was going and I even noticed one man sneakily trying to take a photo of me with his camera phone.

I wandered about the intricate lattice of streets taking in the crumbling but well-loved blue houses beautifully painted with potted plants lining their entrances, the small streams clogged up with all manner of filth and rubbish running inches from people’s front doorsteps and the glint of a golden Hindu God draped in marigolds and tucked away in a discreet corner.

Eventually, I found my way to a main road where rickshaws abounded and I was returned to the more touristy area of the clock tower. At a small street-side stall, I stopped off for a makhania lassi – a yoghut drink made with sugar and butter. I watched the world go by for a while then decided it was time to head back to my guesthouse for some much needed rest in preparation for my early morning journey to Pushkar.

*a blue house used to be the sign that a Brahmin family lived there. Brahmins were the highest of the Indian caste system and were the British equivalent of the clergy. Now anyone is allowed to paint their house blue.

A beautiful city and a shoddy sand dune

Jaisalmer is stunning. Perched high on a cliff top is the one of the oldest lived-in forts in the world. Head through the main gate and you are greeted with a myriad of tiny streets with stunning havelis (read about them here) made of intricately sculpted stone, exquisite Jain temples with their characteristic cone shaped roofs and the beautiful overhanging balconies of the Maharajah's palace.

Jaisalmer is also clean. After trailing through streets clogged with rubbish, it was wonderful to get lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleyways without seeing rubbish strewn about the place.

My three days here were lazy days. I’d booked myself into particularly luxurious accommodation for a change. The hotel had a fantastic roof terrace overlooking the fort where I could sit and watch and listen to the buzz of the city. On my first day I got deliberately lost, soaking up life in the tiny backstreets of Jaisalmer. Here, women in colourful saris sat in groups on their doorsteps laughing, singing or gossiping in rapid Hindi , school kids sat on the back of their fathers’ bicycles with leather satchels on their backs and books to hand as they caught a lift to school, men tapped away energetically in a typewriting centre (no joke…the equivalent of an Internet cafe but with typewriters!) and a man with a handcart full of fruit and veg weighed out portions as local women put in their orders.

My second day was spent seeing the sights. I arrived in the fort to the sound of people singing in the Hindu temple nearby so I went to take a look. The Laxminath temple was reverberating to the sound singing and drumming. This temple is definitely not a ‘mumbling-in-the-back-pew’ affair; everyone sings at full pelt to the beat of a drum – it’s vibrant, it’s energetic, it’s colourful. At one point saffron coloured grain is thrown out into the congregation. Everyone reaches out to catch the grain, turns in unison then motions as though cleaning the air in front of them before putting their hands together as a prayer and touching their foreheads. The ceremony is over and everyone queues up in front of another holy man who hands out small pieces of cotton wool which members of the congregation take and tuck into one of the little folds in their ear. When I got chatting to a shopkeeper near the Jain temples who was actually Hindu, he explained that the cotton was blessed and represented the word of God. By placing it in the ear, the word is with people wherever they go.

Jainism was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha in the 6th century BC. Jains believe that liberation can be attained by achieving complete purity of the soul, and that purity can only be achieved by shedding karman – the matter generated by one’s actions that attaches itself to the soul. Fasting, meditation and non-violence in thought or deed towards any living thing are fundamental to the purification process. Moderate Jains don’t eat meat or wear animal products such as leather; those who take it a little more seriously do without clothes altogether, may wear a mask over their mouths so that they don’t inhale, and thus kill, any microscopic organisms and, in certain situations, brush the ground ahead of them as they walk to ensure they don’t inadvertently stand on any living thing. The Jains in Jaisalmer were very successful merchants and helped build many of the bastions of the fort wall. Their temples are elaborate works of art, every surface intricately carved out of sandstone. Five interconnecting temples dominate the skyline in the centre of the fort, making the palace look almost insignificant in comparison.

The temples and the palace (I highly recommend the audio tour) were both fantastic to visit and I thoroughly enjoyed my second day in the city.

Unfortunately, my third day wasn’t quite so inspiring. Everyone I’d met raved about the camel treks on offer here; having been on a camel once before and having sworn I’d never get on the back of a camel again, I remained unconvinced. However, with time on my side I thought that I might as well give it one more go by heading out on a half day tour. The LP warned that the half day tour was touristy and that rubbish was a bit of a problem so I set off expecting the worst.

The tour started badly. I’d asked for a group tour so that I could meet other Westerners but I was directed to a car bulging with 8 local men (most sat in the boot area) and one woman. I was squished between two men in the back seat. We set off with the windows down and the guy to my right clearing his throat and gobbing out of the window. At one point, the driver stopped to talk to two people by the side of the road. As he chatted to one of the men, the other picked his nose to great depth in view of all of us then proceeded to wipe his nasal detritus on our car door. As if inspired by this gentleman, the man to my right started to pick his nose as we continued on our journey. He duly flicked what he retrieved down by our feet, opened a packet of crisps and offered me one. I politely declined.

We whizzed along on scrubby desert road towards the Pakistan border, arriving at the camel depot an hour later. Everyone in the car except me was told to pick one of the camels sat by the side of the road. I was summoned by the driver and told to walk further along the road to another group of camels and a group of camel ‘drivers’. I was given a camel which I duly sat on and then clung onto for dear life as it raised itself to its full height. The stirrups meant my knees were positioned up near my ears, my bum ached from the instant we started moving and then the driver encouraged the animal to trot and I almost strained my boobs with the relentless bouncing around. My memories of camel hatred came flooding back! It’s the most uncomfortable and unglorified mode of transport one can find.

We proceeded to make our way through the ‘desert’ which consisted of barbed wire fencing, sand strewn with broken glass bottles and plastic and, young boys persistently pestering you to buy drinks for yourself of your driver. We finally arrived at what can only be described as a rubbish tip but marketed as the ‘Sam sand dunes’. People flock to these pathetic lumps of sand strewn with rubbish to watch the sunset. Much to my relief, it was time to dismount my humped steed. My driver explained that I was to watch the sunset then head to the carpark that was all of 50m away. I tried to express my dismay at the rubbish and explained that one day tourists would stop visiting the dunes because of it, but he just didn’t see it as a problem and simply explained that Indian people dropped it.

I dismounted, tipped the camel driver and then was instantly encircled by young girls and women in full costume jiggling about before me so they could extort money from me, there was a magician trying to show me a trick and the usual gaggle of young boys trying to sell me Coke or Sprite. I couldn’t bring myself to stand, let alone sit amongst all the trash, and the harassment and chafing had taken their toll: I made a swift escape to the carpark.

There I sat waiting for my ride back into town as the sun disappeared behind the clouds taking the sunset with it. I was seriously peeved by the whole experience as anyone who approached me soon found out. I was dismayed by the rubbish and the hassle, and by the fact that whoever I spoke to (camel drivers, taxi drivers, the owners of the stalls in the carpark) just didn’t care about it. It just wasn’t seen as a problem. I was desperate to get back to my hotel but I couldn’t find my driver. I was fed up, aching, lonely and emotional so I did what any girl would do and had a little cry.

My lift back to town dropped me off in an area of town that I didn’t know and then, to top it all off, a usually placid cow decided to try and head butt me with its horns as I made my way back to my hotel. This was the day that India nearly broke me!

Rats to riches

I’d decided to head to Bikaner primarily in the search of rats; not just any rats, but holy rats. I’d arranged to be picked up by Mosheem who’d agreed to be my rickshaw driver for the day. I’d warmed to him when he’d picked up my business over other rickshaw drivers who were refusing to drop their prices below ‘rip-off’.

The following morning at precisely 9am as promised he arrived at Vinod’s guesthouse (a clean, friendly and very cheap place to stay and we set of on the 64km round trip to the small town called Desnoek made famous for its truly bizarre rat temple.

According to the Hindus who worship here, the rats are re-incarnations of dead storytellers (it's a long more here) so they deem rats to be sacred. The temple itself is modest in size and style by Hindu standards, but it is its hairy residents that are the real attraction. There are rats everywhere. As you stand barefoot in the temple, the fearless rats scurry and scamper over your feet, clamber across handrails or preen themselves atop shrines. Placed around the temple are large flattened bowls filled with milk where hungry rodents perch with milky moustaches; in other corners rats huddle together stuffing their faces with grain. Surprisingly, the rats aren’t as big or as ugly as one would expect given their daily calorific intake, but the sheer number of them and the slightly overpowering smell of rat pee are a tad off-putting.

Whilst I watched one of the holy men wafting a small tray of candles and incense about one of the shrines to Karni Mata, I watched as a female worshiper knelt down and kissed the floor. It should have been a moving experience watching someone worship their deity but all I could think about were the bacterial, parasitic and viral infections she could contract from kissing a floor contaminated with rat urine and faeces. I guess this particular God/ belief isn’t the one for me!

From Desnoek we headed back into town to visit Lalgarh Palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Bikaner, it has now been converted to a heritage hotel with a small museum dedicated to the Bikaner Maharajahs and their families. The museum wasn’t overly exciting but there were a fair few photos documenting the lives of the current maharajah and his children. The maharajahs of each of the princely states of Rajasthan, whilst no longer head of state, generally contribute one way or another to their respective communities. This particular maharajah and one of his daughters compete in shooting competitions and have represented India in a number of competitions.

A brief tour of the museum and it was soon time to head to Junagarh – an impressive fort that stands over the city of Bikaner. To visit the fort you have no choice but to have a compulsory guide. I was in a group of locals and the guide was rushing us all in an out of each room giving me only the briefest explanation in English. I trailed behind and eventually managed to ‘lose’ the guide so that I could have a look around at a more leisurely pace.

As I came to the end of my tour I walked passed a man sat on a chair in front of the gift shop. ‘Where you from?’ he asked. ‘Here we go again’, I thought. I muttered ‘England’ and he responded with ‘How does it make you feel?’ I was taken aback by this (the second question is usually ‘You no friend?’) and asked him what he meant. ‘Well there was a time when England was in charge of India. Was that a good thing?’ Hmm a leading question. I explained that I wasn’t sure and that there was no way I could compare what India was like before, during and after British rule. I decided to turn the question back on him: ‘What do you think? Is India better now, since Independence?’ Surprisingly, he lent forward and quietly stated: ‘No, it’s not better’. ‘Let me tell you why’, he continued ‘The British gave us a lot. They built the roads, the railways, the schools. We still use everything the British gave us today.’ I joked we’d also given India cricket and now they use it to beat us every time. He laughed and then admitted he didn’t actually like cricket. It was a fascinating conversation and I was very surprised that a local would outwardly admit to a Brit that they thought British rule hadn’t been such a bad thing after all.

I had one more place to visit: the National Research Institute on Camel. At the institute various research projects are undertaken to find ways of making camel breeding profitable. I arrived to a panoramic vista of 30 camel backsides as they fed. Having a wander around I came across a pen of ‘stud camels’, saw the ‘camel dairy’ and finally came across the ‘project on agro processing and electric generation through camel draught’ (make of it what you will!). At the end of my short but amusing tour, I headed for the small cafĂ© where it was possible to purchase camel milk, camel ice cream and camel cheese. I bought some pasteurized camel milk to drink: it was very creamy milk but with a definite essence of camel. I’m not sure I’d want it on my cereal for breakfast!

An unfortunate position

I was catching the night train to Bikaner. Unfortunately, I’d been unable to get First Class or Two Tier tickets so I’d been demoted to Sleeper Class. I’d been nervous about the journey given the horror stories I’d heard but I needn’t have worried: my bunk was in an open compartment with two ladies in their 70s and a middle-aged man who was genuinely friendly and not at all sleezy.

The only downfall was the position of my bunk – it was in the section closest to the toilet and the door that usually separates the compartment and the toilet area was missing. I got on the train at 10:30pm for a 12-hour journey and the air was already thick with ammonia. My only saving grace was that the windows could be opened so by lying down with my face close to an open slit in the window (it was too cold to open it fully) I could get a few gulps of fresh (ish) air.

Ammonia, I’m sad to say, was not the worst of it. You can get used to ammonia and soon your nostrils barely notice it; what I found harder to accept were the sounds – not the sounds of people going to the toilet (the toilets were soundproof) but the sounds associated with the early morning routine undertaken by every member of the carriage at the one sink available which happened to be positioned about 1m from the end of my bed.

As everyone woke the following morning, there was the usual dawn chorus of farts and belching (the women in my section being particularly gifted), which was followed by a steady procession to the sink. Here, each individual took ten minutes at the sink where they cleared their throat and hocked into the sink at least five times, before pressing one nostril in at a time and clearing the contents of their nasal passages. This culminated in them using brown paste smeared on a finger to clean their teeth before a little extra hocking just to make sure their throats were well and truly clear.

This stomach-turning procedure was repeated by each of the 30 people in the carriage. I, meanwhile, had my earphones in and my iPod turned up to max but to no avail. Needless to say, breakfast was well and truly off the menu that morning!

New Delhi

Karl and Haley had hired a car and a driver for the day and asked whether I’d like to join them: I was more than willing!

We were heading into New Delhi. New Delhi bears little resemblance to what I would call Delhi proper. This is where the other half lives – a place of towering mansions, lush gardens, shopping centres and five-star hotels.

Our first stop was Lakshmi’s temple. Lakshmi is Vishnu’s consort and, as the goddess of wealth, she is a firm favourite of many Hindus who come bearing offerings in the hope of future wealth or success in business. The temple was grand with numerous statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi in various guises, all emblazoned in gold and draped with flower garlands.

Leaving Lakshmi and Vishnu behind, we headed towards the area that housed all the parliamentary buildings. Like stately buildings all over the world, these buildings were an uncharismatic, ostentatious display of wealth far removed from the reality in which the majority of the populace it represents exits. The main parliamentary building bore an uncanny resemblance to Washington DC's Capitol Building, and at the end of the wide boulevard that led up to it was a pseudo Arc de Triomphe. We stopped for the obligatory photos then moved swiftly on to Humayun’s tomb.

Unlike the bland parliamentary buildings, Humayan’s tomb is not only a work or art but a work of love. This Mughal masterpiece preceded the Taj and was commissioned by a woman out of love for her dead husband. The building is a stunning example of Mughal architecture built out of marble with fantastically intricate carving covering the beautiful domed ceiling. It was breathtakingly beautiful and yet is deemed infinitely inferior to the Taj itself.

After lunch in an over-priced, upmarket restaurant riddled with tourists, our final stop of the day was Qutb Minar. Here a giant minaret stands tall surrounded by a complex of historic mosques and grassy areas. Qutb Minar was built in 1193 to celebrate the onset of Islamic rule after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. The complex of well-kept ruins is great to wander round but is marred by the amount of litter strewn across the lawns. Unlike most of the sites I’ve visited, which are generally very well maintained, at Qutb Minar it seemed that they'd neglected to install dustbins or employ someone to pick up the rubbish. It was a real shame given both the importance and popularity of the complex.

A day in old Delhi

On my first day in Delhi I decided to walk the 3.5km from my hotel to the Red Fort – a path that led me through an intricate maze of bazaars selling everything from nuts and spices to filthy motorbike parts and stunning handmade wedding invitations. The streets in Delhi are in constant motion, brimming with thousands of people busy making their way through life. Handcarts piled high with hessian sacks of grain are pulled by slender, wiry men; cycle rickshaws laden down with three male passengers struggle to meander through the bustling streets, whilst motorbikes and auto-rickshaws honk their horns and swerve violently in and out of pedestrians and stall holders.

Passing through the spice bazaar, large colourful pyramids of spices are piled high in shop fronts and you’re invited in with the scent of cinnamon and cardamom. Lining the streets, chai wallahs and the owners of food stalls do a roaring trade as people stop briefly to sup on chai and eat the sweet scent of sugar and oil thick in the air.

A man sits next to a stall and has his hair cut, women chattering and giggling disappear excitedly among swathes of material in glittering sari shops and men sit on beds with shop owners sipping on chai and doing business for the latest mobile phone. Above, a tangle of electricity cords hangs low and gathers at poles in a massive, dangerous knot of wires.

Emerging from the bazaars, you end up on Chandni Chowk – the main shopping street in Delhi that leads to the Red Fort. Glass fronted shops sell plasma TVs, mobile phones and washing machines, there are designer clothes stores and even a McDonalds. This street is the perfect example of India today: a unique juxtaposition between Asian powerhouse and spiritual centre of the world. On this single Westernised street in Delhi, the cultural and spiritual roots of India are still firmly cemented into its foundations. At the end of the road is a mosque, a little way along there’s a Sikh temple, on the opposite side of the road is a Baptist church, then a Hindu temple, culminating with a massive Jain temple that stands directly opposite the Red Fort. Few Western cities could boast such cultural diversity on a single street.

The Red Fort is impressive in its scale but lacking in its content – the rooms inside were stripped of their luxurious treasures long ago, leaving the visitor to meander around the outskirts of the various buildings within the fort wall. My timing was poor. Despite it being a Saturday morning, the place was heaving with school children all dressed in brightly coloured uniforms. And, unfortunately, this made me (single, white female!) the main attraction. I lost count of the number of hands I shook or the times I heard: “Miiiiiss, miiiiiss, photo miss” (they all wanted their photos taken with me). I soon reached my threshold of interaction and was glad to escape!

From the Red Fort, I decided to make my way down to Jama Masjid – the largest mosque in India. At full capacity the mosque can hold a spectacular 25,000 worshippers. As I made my way through the ammonia-ladened air of the open urinals (they are actually official urinals and you see men lined up there peeing against a nominated pee wall at the side of the street), and through stalls selling leather goods and food, I got chatting to Karl and Haley – an American ‘couple’…or so I thought (it was only the following day that I discovered they were actually just friends).

They very kindly invited me to join them for the afternoon and I jumped at the chance: it had been over 4 days since I’d spoken to anyone who spoke fluent English and it was bliss not to have to resort to international sign language for a while.

The mosque is truly majestic, dominating the surrounding area with its domed roof and minarets carving its defining silhouette. Unfortunately, the majesty of the building itself was not quite replicated by the men who managed it. Haley and I were given a hard time of it for being ‘inappropriately dressed’ – in spite of the full length jeans and long sleeved tops we were wearing – and were aggressively handed weird gowns to wear. The men then grabbed our bags and started to rifle through them demanding 200R to take photos (extortionate in India where you usually pay a maximum of 50R for the privilege) so we gave our cameras to Karl to look after.

A young boy came up to us and starting speaking to us in English. He was very sweet and told us all about his mosque. He suggested that we went up one of the towers (at an additional cost!) but the sign saying ‘All women must be accompanied’ soon put an end to that consideration. In the corner of the courtyard behind a grille – with an uncanny resemblance to a cage – was the women’s prayer room, whilst the men were allowed in to prey in the ornate main building. As we wandered about having a look round, a man walked up to us and shouted at us angrily saying ‘prayer now, you go, you go!’ and jabbing his finger towards the exit. With that we’d had enough and were happy to leave.

This experience felt very much at odds with India as a whole. On my wanders around towns and cities, I’ve always popped my head in to have a look at temples (Buddhist, Jain, Sikh or Hindu) or churches and I’ve always felt very welcome; at the mosque, I felt like an unwelcome intruder. It was really dispiriting to be treated with such contempt not just because of my differing beliefs but also because of my sex. It certainly wasn’t a particularly engaging or welcoming introduction to Islam.

We spent the rest of the afternoon winding our way through the tiny maze of alleyways in the area absorbing the innumerable sights: a man sat on a stone step, a goat beside him with its neck slit and bleeding; a live chicken stood atop a pile of ‘freshly’ prepared chicken pieces; metal workers hammering aluminium and copper into the shape of bowls; a kitsch statue of a Hindu god draped with marigolds and fragranced with incense; and a small girl squatting to pee into the open sewer running along the length of the alleyway.

Haley, Karl and I arranged to meet the following day and I walked with them to their hotel before setting off back towards mine. My plan was to pick up a cycle rickshaw to save having to walk all the way back but, as is often the case in India, my plan fell through.

I found myself back on Chandni Chowk but instead of the chaos of two lanes of cycle rickshaws, cars and buses, the road was roped off with police turning cars back at every junction. People lined the pavements, waiting in anticipation for what turned out to be a religious procession. The noise – it was in no way music – was tremendous. Two marching bands in dramatically colourful regalia marched one behind the other. Both were attempting to play different ‘tunes’ and outcompete each other in the volume and out-of-tune stakes. Rather like Indian driving, these musicians insisted on playing their instruments at full pelt with little regard for what the other members of the ‘band’ were playing. The result was a cataclysmic collision of sound that played havoc with eardrums; nevertheless, the locals were enthralled.

Mid way through the procession was a carriage of holy men in bright pink turbans. They handed out alms of food and the locals flocked to receive it. At the back of the carriage was a golden statue seated in a silver throne bearing lions. More ‘musical’ entertainment and flag bearing individuals followed the carriage. The procession slowly made its way down the street whilst at each junction, chaos ensued as cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and handcarts were all attempting simultaneously u-turn whilst ever more vehicles joined the fray.

I made my way through the packed street until I made it to the other end. Having given up on my chances of getting a rickshaw that could actually move, I stood in a shop doorway and waited the procession out. Finally, the clogged up arteries of Delhi’s roads slowly began to flow once more. I found a rickshaw driver and haggled for a reasonable price (down from 10x local price to 5x) for the remainder of my journey.

It was the first time I’d taken a cycle rickshaw and it will certainly be the last. Unlike the cock-sure, muscular, well-fed rickshaw drivers in London, these rickshaw cyclists reside very near the bottom of the social pile. They are often men who left the countryside in search of a more fruitful existence in Delhi. The work is exceptionally difficult and the money they receive for it less than minimal. Many of the rickshaw cyclists don’t have a home but live in rickshaw communities where a group of cyclists congregate at night and sleep on or under their rickshaws. I found it deeply uncomfortable sitting in a rickshaw whilst a fellow human toiled away, standing his full weight on each peddle in order to get me back to my hotel. As he struggled up a hill, I had a real urge to jump out of the rickshaw and lend a hand but, in truth, I was the least of this man’s worries: I was only a single person (I’d seen entire families being carted around on a single rickshaw) and I was paying well over the odds (enough for two decent feeds). Nevertheless, I didn’t find any enjoyment in the experience.